Wednesday 24 July 2013

Do the Royals make us richer?

 After posting an image relating to the royal birth on the Another Angry Voice Facebook page I was inundated with countless iterations of the same basic claim; that the Royal family bring in more money to the economy than the £38 million in annual subsidies the Queen receives from the taxpayer.

One of these royal sycophants laughably attempted to substantiate their claim with an absurdly pro-monarchist clip on Youtube, in which a £160 million a year "net benefit" to the UK economy was claimed. That's the figure I'm going to consider in this article.

Before I get around to discrediting this £160 million figure as the nonsense that it is, lets first assume for a while that it is true. £160 million may sound like a lot of cash, but in perspective it's a piddlingly small amount given the enormous assets at royal disposal and the size of the UK economy. To put this alleged "net contribution" into context:
The Queen is by far the biggest landowner in the world with 6.6 billion acres to her name (the next biggest landowner in the world is King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia with 830 million acres, just 12% of the Queen's land portfolio). In the UK, the Crown Estates' 384,000 acre landholding is estimated to be worth at least £8-10 billion, whilst the Duchy of Cornwall (another separate estate which has been run since 1377 for the benefit of the heir to the throne) consists of 133,000 acres, now worth an estimated £1.5 billion. Aside from the Royal property portfolios, vast swathes of the UK are still owned by the descendants of the aristocratic classes that were gifted huge tracts of stolen land by the royal family over the centuries (but that's another story).

If all the royal estates are added together this gives the royal family the third biggest land holding in the entire country after the Forestry Commission and the Ministry of Defence. This property portfolio includes some of the most potentially valuable buildings in the entire country and even half of the UK coastal seabed (which comes in quite handy if the government decides to pay you heaps of cash to build a load of offshore windfarms there).

Does it not seem a little odd that the royalist crowd are trying to cheer a piddling net contribution of just 1/5,000th of current UK government expenditure, from what is undoubtedly the largest private landholding in the country? Is it not even remotely possible that the Crown Estate, the Duchy of Cornwall and the various other property assets in the royal portfolio could be put to much more efficient economic usage than they are currently? 

Another factor worthy of consideration before I get around to discrediting the claimed £160 million "net benefit" is that the only people who could possibly be convinced that a contribution of just 0.02% of government expenditure represents a good deal, are those that are fervorent supporters of the institution of monarchy. Other people that are capable of putting this supposed contribution into context and considering whether the maintenance of such anachronistic inequality have social costs that outweigh the claimed financial benefits, are less likely to consider this a good deal. Put simply, people that cite this kind of fabricated evidence are the kind of people that know the price of everything and the value of nothing. 

In order to generate their £160 million figure, the royal apologist likes to add income generated from tourism into the mix, however they carefully exclude the possibility that tourism revenues could actually be massively increased by opening up the royal palaces to tourism (making one of them the most uber-exclusive hotel in the entire world perhaps). The Palace of Versailles is the single most lucrative tourist attraction in France, it's hard to imagine that it would generate quite as much revenue if it were still a private monarchical residence.

Imagine if the Crown Estate were privatised; carved up and sold off to the private sector like so many of our (actually quite useful) public assets have been over the last three decades.

How much do you think might be raised through the sale of over half a million acres of land, all those castles and palaces, and all that treasure? If just 1% of it per year were privatised, that would raise far more than this imaginary net contribution of £160 million.

Another factor that the royal apologist neglects to include in their calculations is that the royal estates are not subject to inheritance tax (like the assets of most wealthy people are). Surely the vast amounts of inheritance tax that the royal family will avoid when the Queen dies should be subtracted from the pie-in-the-sky £160 million figure? The net worth of the Queen is estimated to be £13 billion, so the £5.2 billion in inheritance tax bill they will avoid (around £87 million a year for every single year of her reign to date) should surely be subtracted from this supposed royal "net contribution".

Another factor to consider is the secretive powers the royal family have to manipulate government legislation to their own advantage. The Guardian tried for years to reveal the truth about these anti-democratic interventions but their Freedom of Information requests into what kind of insidious influence the royal family have had over parliamentary legislation were quashed by the Tory Attorney General Dominic Grieve using a rarely used power of veto and the absurd justification that the contents must remain secret because they could ruin the public perception of Prince Charles' political neutrality and "seriously damage his future role as king"! So according to Tory party logic, the public mustn't be allowed to know how the royal family have undermined democracy to further their own interests, because if they did know, they would be so outraged by the revelations that the royal family might fall as a consequence!

One must wonder what a secretive veto over parliamentary legislation could be worth in financial terms. It is clearly impossible to subtract the financial benefit of a secretive legislative veto from the supposed "net benefit" the royals provide, since the government won't even disclose what laws have been tampered with, let alone in what ways. If it is impossible to know exactly how the royals have benefited from such anti-democratic meddling, it's also impossible to estimate how much financial harm may have been inflicted on the wider UK economy simply in order to appease royal whims.

In January 2011, shortly after the ridiculous decision to veto disclosure of these anti-democratic royal interventions on the most spurious of grounds, the Tory party introduced new legislation to exempt the royal family and their staff from the Freedom of Information Act entirely. Even if disclosure would clearly be in the public interest, the Tories have now hidden the royal finances and their political interferences behind an impenetrable veil of secrecy. Here's what the former member of the Public Accounts Committee Ian Davidson said:
"I'm astonished that the Tory led Government should find time to seek to cover up royal finances. When I was on the PAC, what we wanted was more disclosure not less ... Every time we examined royal finances we found extravagance and indulgence as well as abuse of expenses by junior royals ... Everywhere we looked, there were savings to be made for the Government. This sends the wrong message about public disclosure and accountability."
One must wonder why such a conspicuous veil of secrecy over the royal finances is necessary. If the royal family really are the "net contributors" that royal sycophants endlessly claim that they are, then surely they should be proud to demonstrate their "net contribution" in an accountable manner, rather than deliberately hiding it from public scrutiny.

Given the exemption from inheritance tax, the extremely dubious "increased tourism" claims, the secretive powers to influence parliamentary legislation and the cloak of official secrecy over the royal finances, I believe the only people who would actually be taken in by the fantastical £160 million "net benefit" figure would be intellectually lazy ideological royalists in search of some big looking numbers to feed into their personal confirmation biases.

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